One Pugnacious and One Persistent Princess
Make Two Pleasing Picture Books

h1 May 1st, 2007 by jules

I didn’t set out to do a princess-y picture book round-up here, but as fate would have it, I came across two new ones at once, one published by a giant publishing company (Scholastic) and the other published by the lesser-known yet stout-hearted Charlesbridge Publishing. And, fear not: these are not your run-of-the-mill princesses. They have quite a bit of spunk and sauciness — one of them to a fault, to say the least. Let’s get right to it . . .

Princess Justina Albertina: A Cautionary Tale
by Ellen Dee Davidson and
illustrated by Michael Chesworth
Charlesbridge Publishing
February 2007
(library copy)

I love a well-crafted, contemporary, tongue-in-cheek cautionary tale, and just check out that cover. Princess Justina Albertina’s nanny is holding a sign with that very sub-title, “A Cautionary Tale.” Pretty funny, since the princess is back there raising hell at the drawbridge. And flip the book over, and you’ll see Princess Justina’s crest with the words “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” a Latin phrase meaning “Thus ever it be with tyrants” (the phrase is attributed to Brutus at the assassination of Julius Caesar). Hmmm . . . you get the idea immediately that you’re in for one presumptuous, pushy protagonist. Indeed, the Princess is loud-mouthed, haughty, and just flat-out spoiled to death (and Chesworth accentuates that with his rather porcine rendition of her). There’s much humor here as her nanny suffers her fits (“She caused a ruckus and a rumpus and a horrible hubbub,” we’re told more than once, giving her nanny repeated headaches). She goes so far as to cover the earth trying to find her the perfect pet; this, the princess whines, is her current demand. She heads to a lagoon for a polka-dotted puffer fish, buys her a two-headed dog, takes a raft to Brazil and finds a talking toucan librarian, finds a purple-crested duchess monkey in the jungles of Africa, and more. The ill-mannered Princess Justina manages to scare or blatantly piss off each potential pet (the fish is “no fun” and she wants a pet who notices her; she tries to ride the dog, practically killing him in the process; she declares that the clever toucan is too “stupid” to say her name; and, she frightens the bejeesus out of the African monkey with her meanest possible face).

Even with the Princess’ visibly funny crude, bratty behavior, it’s the straight man here in the form of the nanny who provides the biggest laughs: as she sets off to an enchanted forest to try to lure a unicorn “with rose petals and songs,” we see that said unicorn’s ears are near to bleeding with the discordant sounds coming out of the well-meaning nanny’s tuba (it’s all in his amusing facial expression). And when she sets off on a surfboard to Australia to bring back the famous flying kangaroo, she’s clutching How to Surf in her hands with a hysterically determined (or is it grim?) expression on her face, riding atop a wave in her wet suit (yet still wearing a kerchief in her hair and still wearing her granny glasses). But, best of all (SPOILER AHEAD, but I just have to share the great ending), when the nanny brings back a towering gryphon from the far ends of the earth and the princess screams, “‘He’s perfect. He’s exactly the pet I want,'” the surly gryphon swallows her down in one gulp. “Then the gryphon burped and flew away.” Yes, parents will get a big laugh out of the twisted humor, too. I’ll leave the book’s final page for you to discover: nanny’s amusing, understated reaction to this sudden turn of events.

Chesworth’s humorous and dramatic cartoonesque illustrations, rendered in watercolor, colored pencil, and gouache, bring to mind a bit ‘o David Small, particularly in the nanny’s character (she could be librarian Elizabeth Brown’s long-lost cousin), and Davidson keeps the story clipping along at at an entertainingly brisk pace. This is Davidson’s first picture book, so here’s to whatever she may have lined up next for us as readers . . .

The Three Silly Chicks also discusssed this title here. Enjoy!

Princess Pigsty
by Cornelia Funke and
illustrated by Kerstin Meyer
English translation by Chantal Wright
Scholastic (Chicken House)
April 2007 (first published in Germany
in 1997)
(library copy)

In my experience, it is always a happy, happy day when Cornelia Funke and Kerstin Meyer join forces as author and illustrator — as they have with The Princess Knight in 2003, The Pirate Girl in 2005, and The Wildest Brother in 2006 — to name just a few. Just as those titles were, this was originally published in Germany — ten years ago, if you can believe it — but now we have an English edition . . . Drusilla, Rosalinda, and Isabella are real princesses with footmen and ladies-in-waiting and people who teach them royal behavior and all this hoity-toity nonsense, which is how Isabella, the youngest, sees it. One morning, she just pretty much snaps — throwing her crown across the room, out the window, and into the royal fishpond — and yells, “‘I am tired of being a princess! It’s boring, boring, boring! . . . I want to get dirty!'” She refuses to get dressed, and when her father, the king, arrives, she continues her rant: “‘Princesses don’t do anything fun. Princesses don’t even pick their noses. Princesses just stand around looking pretty. Yuck. I don’t want to be a princess anymore!'” Refusing to fish her crown out of the pond, she’s sent into the kitchens to clean and work. Meyer makes it clear that Isabella is thrilled to be put to some actual use, and when her father tells her next time he sees her that she reeks of onions, she tells him with much glee and curiosity and wonder all that she learned during her servitude (“‘Did you know that cream is made from milk?'”). Next, she’s sent to the pigsty, and she grows to love that, too, and requests a further stay there.

Later, after fishing her crown out of the fishpond, the king joins his daughter, tenderly saying, “‘Oh my little daughter . . . You are dirty and your hair feels like straw, but you look happy!'” Of course, Isabella is happier than ever before. Telling her she may do as she wishes with her crown as long as she returns to the castle (“‘I miss you'”), she acquiesces. But, she gives her fancy clothes away and occasionally returns to the pigsty to sleep.

As Publishers Weekly put it, “Funke and Meyer once again skewer the princess stereotype” — just as they did with The Princess Knight. Thank goodness they do so. We need our contemporary feminist fairytales, demonstrating that “happily-ever-after can mean different things to different people” (Publishers Weekly again). Funke makes Isabella’s spunkiness quite clear, but the moments of poignancy between the king and his daughter are an added extra nice touch (when he asks her to come home and as they walk off in the twilight, hand-in-hand at the book’s close). And her use of bigger, bolder type throughout the story (“pinched,” “scratched,” “kicked,” “stink,” “boring,” “dirty!”, etc.) add a bit more excitement to an already-spirited narrative. Meyer entertains with her usual animated cartoon illustrations, making the rebellious princess even more endearing with her mettle and grit and always-determined looks.

Here’s to plucky princesses (as well as churlish gryphons who can put the over-the-top ones in their place!) . . .

One comment to “One Pugnacious and One Persistent Princess
Make Two Pleasing Picture Books”

  1. Oh these sound wonderful! Thanks for the recommendation.

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